Wednesday, November 23, 2022

New bull kelp exhibit shares the wonders of this undersea ecosystem

Creating awareness and understanding of our undersea kelp forests

How can one create urgency and awareness for the protection of a largely unseen ecosystem? For the many scientists, designers, artists, educators and volunteers who worked on the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s “Bull Kelp: Our Remarkable Underwater Forests” exhibit (BKE), the answer is through teamwork and artistry.

The first kelp forest exhibit was created in time for the 2018 Wooden Boat Festival, with creatures made out of upcycled fabric and found materials. PTMSC Program Director Diane Quinn, Aquarium Curator Ali Redman and exhibit designer Andrew Whiteman knew they could create a richer experience from this initial design.

Education Coordinator Carolyn Woods  and Outreach Coordinator
Mandi Johnson work together sewing bull kelp fronds to the exhibi
A successful application for funding from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account (ALEA) program helped PTMSC staff, volunteers, artists and artisans create this new experience: A multi-sensory exhibit that suggests a dive in a bull kelp dominated forest.

Visitors are surrounded by dynamic artwork, created by Timbul Cahyono, as they walk through the small structure. Cahyono’s images of sea otters, swimming puffins and other sea creatures are printed on translucent fabric, which provides a watery feel.

Port Townsend visual artist and former PTMSC AmeriCorps Marine Educator Mariah Vane created a host of kelp forest residents, including fluffy sea anemones, prickly sea urchins and realistic articulated crabs.

The bull kelp fronds and particularly, the bull kelp bulbs, are strikingly realistic and have been crafted from green microfleece around a hidden craft ball. A ball joint from an electrical supply store connects the stipes to the bulbs with a satisfying click.

Layers of bull kelp fronds composed of the same translucent fabric as the exhibits walls were carefully hand sewn into the exhibit’s “ceiling’ (or water surface) by PTMSC staff. That water surface also includes what can only be described as a”pigeon guillemot’s butt,” the swimming side when viewed from underwater.

The interpretive panels are printed on PET 100% recyclable material and PTMSC will upcycle them when the exhibit eventually ends — turning them into bags and other merchandise.

The kelp bulbs are made from upcycled holiday ornaments and the rocks that the holdfasts attach to are filled with upcycled packing foam. 

Mandi Johnson and Program Director Diane Quinn at work
hand sewing bull kelp fronds to the exhibit's ceiling.

The rewarding opportunity to sit together around a large table during a work day and hand-sew exhibit highlights proved to be a delightful chance for coworkers to get to know one another. Staff members brought in their sewing machines from home to hem the exhibit walls and attach fabric signs, and others donated bins of quilted batting and fiber stuffing to create the exhibit’s sea floor "rocks.”

The fact that the exhibit artist is married to the aquarium curator, and that the exhibit designer and the program director worked together at Seattle’s Burke Museum for many years, added to the fun of the whole project.

The beauty of the structure’s imagery extends to the carefully researched and thoughtfully written interpretive panels that accompany the exhibit. Andrew Whiteman took the lead on writing the narratives based on an outline that Ali Redman created. The text incorporates some of the work that the Puget Sound Restoration Fund did for their bull kelp StoryMap.The panels feature historical, cultural and even culinary uses of kelp with imagery freely offered by generous sources who believe in the importance of sharing the value of this vital ecosystem.

BKE visitors will learn that the kelp forest is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. Found in cool marine waters around the globe, kelp forests’ diverse and dynamic communities are comparable to coral reefs and rainforests. In North America, kelp forests provide habitat for over 1,000 species of plants and animals such as fish, invertebrates, sea otters, sea lions and whales.

Interpretive materials also include 21 actions one can take at work, within one’s community, while on the water and as one goes about their day, including purchasing sustainable seafood products and supporting kelp farming by using toiletries, food and other household products containing sustainable kelp ingredients. Support for organizations working to conserve and restore kelp forests is also encouraged.

Hand constructed sea creatures populate the exhibit.
A handy field guide is provided at the exhibit, featuring the beautiful images from the installation, helpful for identifying the 40 creatures illustrated.

Designed to be a highly portable exhibit, the structure is basically a folding tent that features several enhancements, including a recorded soundscape that will play sea sounds on discreetly placed speakers. Ambient lighting simulates the nearshore habitat’s location to the sun and future plans include a live tank with sea creatures found in the forest. A video of a kelp forest underwater experience by well-known documentary videographer Florian Graner will be available as well. 

PTMSC volunteers have been very eager to sign up for opportunities to provide interpretation for the exhibit and have been provided resources and individualized training to effectively tell the story of this ecosystem. These volunteer docents will be on hand for the exhibit Friday through Sunday, November 25 through February 25, in our Flagship Landing Gallery located in downtown Port Townsend.

The nearshore, including kelp forests, are a priority habitat but comparatively few people in our area have access and means to explore them. We know that education and outreach are an integral part of their protection and recovery, and we are excited to introduce this immersive science learning experience to students, families and adults throughout the region.

Written by PTMSC Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Thompson.

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